As ESL teachers we have to always be flexible, it comes with the job. If we choose to always teach the same level and age of students it’s easy to get bored and sooner or later we will run out of ideas on how to keep the lessons interesting not just for our students but for us teachers as well. Repetition of the same lesson over and over again, personally, is a killer. A few years ago, I took a leap of faith and started accepting requests to teach younger learners. Now I teach eight-year olds and twelve-year olds as well as thirteen-year olds. Each time I went into the first lesson with reservations, worried that these guys would give me more trouble than I was willing to put up with; but so far I have been refreshingly surprised with the excitement and eagerness they bring to each lesson we have together.
I wanted to write about my experience to maybe dispel any unwarranted criticism that such lessons might receive from teachers and to also encourage others to take on the challenge which can be incredibly rewarding, more so than adults in some ways.
It’s important for me to point out that my experiences are mostly with individual lessons, though I have had extensive experience with older teenagers in the 15-18 age range. I think that’s important, because the differences are significant when dealing with a whole classroom of 20 or more 10 year-olds which I admit can be a daunting task. So where do I start? Well for starters, younger learners are much better at “absorbing” the new language that comes out from the lessons and are eager to interact and use what is being learned immediately. Adults have more difficulties with incorporating new language from the lessons into their vocabulary and to actually use it. I have found that usually children or teenagers are reserved and shy in the first few lessons we have, but I’ve learned that they really are just testing you to see what kind of teacher you are and if they can trust you. Once you’ve built that trust, they then open up to you and are fully engaged in the lesson. Since there is a lot more interaction with the younger learners, the time flies by with them because you are engaged in discussion and learning from start to finish.
Keep it simple
Though lots of people have pre-prepared games and activities I have found that this doesn’t always work for me. Instead, we have a course book that we use as a starting point for ideas and then just go with the flow. With kids, I find that the lesson is much more enjoyable for them when it’s just natural interaction and not forced exercises. I try to ask them simple questions about their everyday life and interests, and use that as a jumping off point to practice vocabulary and sentence construction. For instance, this 8-year old I have lessons with told me about the presents he got for his first communion so I asked him to show me the photographs he had taken, and then got him to describe and tell me about them in more detail. As a homework assignment I asked him to take pictures of the activities he does during the week and prepare to talk to me about what he shot with his brand new camera! 🙂 He was very excited about it.
One aspect I particularly focus on is question formation. Students are used to getting asked questions constantly and so develop good listening skills because they recognize the words and construction but are quite weak when they have to form questions themselves. So after I ask a question, I ask them to ask me the same question. Once they’ve done it correctly, I answer slowly and clearly with language I know we’ve worked on and encourage them to ask a follow-up question. If they don’t comply then I ask and we take it in turns. I find this to be very effective in developing a balanced conversation while encouraging them to converse naturally with me. It’s actually a lot of fun, and you’d be amazed at what they can say and come up with, it’s actually quite amazing.
Inevitably, if you work with these kids for a number of years you watch them grow and mature and see the fruits of your labor, witnessing the great progress they’ve made. Unavoidably, this comes with dealing with some nasty moodiness when they are 12 or 13 years old. It comes with the job, but since you’re not the parent, it’s only an hour or two a week you have to deal with this. I usually tell them to toughen up, that everyone goes through it and stop whining about it. Tough love folks, that’s how it’s got to be.
Of course experiences vary from child to child and the level of English they have. Typically, parents who contact me have children who have elementary level English already and that’s enough to get us going. Though I’m not willing to trade in my business classes for more lessons with young learners just yet, there is no doubt that over the past few years I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. For anyone out there considering a small shift from your comfort zone I urge you to go for it with an open mind and you’ll surely be rewarded for your own leap of faith. Part of the beauty of teaching is how we can always take on new challenges and improve our teaching methods through these new endeavors. Welcoming comments from your own experiences. In a future post I’ll discuss resources that we can use when teaching young learners. Bottom’s up peeps and happy Saturday!